New research from Stanford Professor Zakary Tormala and graduate student Aaron Snyder examines how individuals weigh the pros and cons when making a decision. They found that people tend to dwell on the negative. According to their research, "People feel more conflicted when faced with many positives and a few negatives than they do when faced with many negatives and a few positives." Tormala explains: "“Suppose you are evaluating a person — for example, a job candidate — and you make a list of his or her positive and negative qualities. Even assuming you come up with positives and negatives that are equally relevant and compelling, the negatives tend to carry more weight.” Adding just one or two negatives to a list of many positives can cause people to feel conflicted, uncertain, and ambivalent about a decision. Put simply, we dwell on those negatives, even if they are few in number.
Is there something inherently wrong with this bias toward negativity? I worry that it may lead to much indecision, and that inability to take action can be a problem in many situations. Moreover, it may cause us to lose confidence in our ability to make the right call in tough circumstances. We might exhibit far too much risk aversion in certain situations because of this negativity bias. On the other hand, perhaps the mind has found a way to prevent us from making rash decisions. It might just be pumping the brakes for us a bit, so that we don't simply look at the world through rose-colored glasses, as we are want to do in many circumstances. How do we find the right balance? Often, the team around us can help us. Some people are inherently more positive than others. They can push back when some are dwelling on the negative. Similarly, some members can challenge those who are exhibiting overconfidence or excessive optimism.